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City Places for City People
The Bilbao Effect

by Jacob Bacharach

The story is, by now, familiar to almost everyone: A sleepy, seaside, former industrial city in Northern Spain gets a new museum housed in a building already called--on its completion at the end of the 20th century--the most important building of the 21st. The city, of course, is Bilbao; the museum is Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim. Virtually overnight, the small city became one of the most popular destinations in Europe. From all reports, Bilbao is rapidly metamorphosing from a sort of one-hit wonder to a genuinely vibrant city with restaurants, nightlife, theatre, and art. Gehry's radical, shimmering metal building has become a source of immense civic pride.

Call it the Bilbao Effect, though it predates the Guggenheim there by at least a few thousand years. Great architecture should be the centerpiece of urban space. Whether religious, governmental, commercial, or cultural, buildings define their cities; think of the Pantheon, of the Forbidden City--more than one building, I know--of any one of a thousand Parisian buildings and monuments, of the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings. The critics who complain about the Bilbao Guggenheim's sometimes lackluster collection and exhibitions--the same criticism has been leveled at Los Angeles' just-as-impressive Getty Center--do have a point, but they also miss the point. The point is the building as art, not just as a house for art. Architecture is the only truly public art form left. Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Rem Koolhaas: they are the cathedral builders of our time. Not since Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe have so many architects become so nearly household names.

There's something thrilling about the gradually increasing visibility of civic architecture in the last couple of decades. Let's face it, for a longtime we built a lot of ugly buildings. Pittsburgh's skyline is lovely, no doubt about it. But has anyone every really looked at Fifth Avenue Place? Thestandard urban architecture of the 1980s and 1990s, all polished stone facing and flush, reflective windows, isn't exactly ugly…it's just boring, part of the whole focus-group, market-tested, take-no-risks-and-pull-every-punch culture of the "longest peacetime economic expansion" in American history. To be fair, Europe, despite a plethora of talented architects, did only slightly better in an era (now, thankfully, coming to an end) of emulating America and dismantling or weakening its own civic institutions. Perhaps it's fitting that, like the Depression-era Empire State Building, economic downturns spur on public works.

Contemporary Pittsburgh is not pre-Guggenheim Bilbao, of course. Though we may not compete with New York or London or Paris, our city is comparatively rich in cultural institutions, in parks, in geography. In recent years the food scene has improved tremendously, and we're finally discovering the value of good hotels and accommodations. A great piece of architecture won't kickoff our growth into a true destination city; it will augment and accentuate it.

That great building is right around the corner: French architect and urban planner Jean Nouvel's Carnegie Science Center expansion. Nouvel--whose name, appropriately, means "new"--received the medal of Chevalier dans l'ordre des arts et lettres in 1983, two decades before the planned completion of the science center expansion. For Americans unused to the French mania for arts et lettres, that makes him the proverbial big deal. He's already gained renown in Europe for projects like the Institut du Monde Arabe and Cartier Foundation in Paris, the Lyon Opera House, and Berlin's Galleries Lafayette. Nouvel is known in particular for his love of context, his emphasis on the interaction and conversation between building and site and city, and for his ability to understand contemporary architecture as a continuation of an architectural tradition and history.

Our science center, when complete, will pay homage to all of these. Designed as a vast, transparent cantilever over the confluence of the three rivers, his plan is already being spoken of as a sort of truncated bridge-about-to-take-flight. Maybe more accurately, it resembles a bridge that's building itself. In renderings of the design, the immense glass box at the end of the cantilevered section seems to frame the ramp onto the West End Bridge further up the Ohio River. On the other side, the front elevation is a combination of glass and natural space, at once organic and carefully controlled. I can't help but think that his design is equally homage to what is currently the most important piece of Western Pennsylvania architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, also cantilevered over water, also a study in transparency broken by horizontal bands and brought into relief by one off-center vertical mass. And as with Wright's work, the principle organizing principle is volume and uninterrupted space.

Despite all of this, Nouvel's work is decidedly new and fitting with an ideal image of Pittsburgh. Some years ago, the designers of the Pittsburgh International Airport talked about using windows and openness to contrast the tired image of ours as a smoky, dark city. Nouvel does much the same. His transparent building will highlight the city itself, the sky, Mount Washington, and the rivers. It will show, rather than obscure, the city that will be its backdrop.

Mayor Murphy has been quoted as saying, with an uncharacteristic irony, that he would prefer Pittsburgh be known for great architecture than for new stadiums. Wouldn't we all? A new building, if it is a good building, isn't just an accessory to the urban landscape, it's an integral part of it. The selection of Nouvel was a wise one, if only because his buildings always seem to know where they are: to stand out, yes, but to do so as does a great team player. The science center may be the best, but it makes the rest of the team look better at the same time.

So will we experience the Bilbao Effect? We're well-positioned for it. Pittsburgh could be a cultural center. The Carnegie Science Center expansion may well have the effect of pushing us that last step, to where we all become invested in the public, civic aspect of our city's future, as the residents of Bilbao, Spain, are invested in their own. In a sense, then, the question isn't how many tourists will stop by to see the shining building on the North Shore, but rather, how many times each Pittsburgher will visit, and how much Jean Nouvel's one work will drive us to reinvest ourselves in that un-antiquated value of civic pride.

Jacob Bacharach